- Historic Sites
America’s very first alpine ski resort—they invented the chair lift there—is still as good as it gets
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
The lodge has been much renovated since then, but it retains its original feeling of first-class comfort without flashiness. The walls of the corridors leading off the main lobby, which looks out on a year-round outdoor ice-skating rink, are lined with photographs of celebrities visiting Sun Valley over the years, from Ginger Rogers and Louis Armstrong and Ray Milland through Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Ford and on up to Michael Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The stars never stopped coming after the grand opening; Sun Valley was a new playground of the glamorous. The president of the Union Pacific remarked, “I’ve been with this railroad umpty-ump years and in that time the railroad has spent millions getting rid of snow; now we’re spending millions to play in the goddamned stuff.”
In 1939 Hannagan invited Ernest Hemingway for a visit. The writer, who despised skiing, arrived with his future wife Martha Gellhorn in time for hunting season, and while staying in room 206 of the lodge—still a choice corner suite—he finished For Whom the Bell Tolls . When he came back the next year, he was introduced to another guest, Gary Cooper, who would go on to star in the movie of the novel. Hemingway liked the area so much he eventually, in 1959, bought the house in which he ended his days.
Within the first couple of years it became clear that the little treeless mountains like Dollar on which Sun Valley had built its first ski slopes weren’t enough, so in 1939 Baldy opened. With a vertical rise of almost thirty-five hundred feet, it remains one of the best ski mountains in the nation. I went up it the day after my Dollar Mountain tryout, and again I felt the time-machine effect. Although Baldy is three chair-lift rides high, you can get all the way to the top in ten minutes because of high-speed lifts introduced in the 1980s; the chairs slow down at either end to let you gently on and off, and because of the efficiency of the system, you don’t even wait on a lift line. Once up top, in the thin air above the tree line, I looked down to Ketchum beneath my feet and momentarily envisioned walking down the mountain. Once I set off, though (there are trails marked “easy” all the way from the top), I found the skiing better than anything I remembered, partly because the trails are not only blanketed with fresh snow every night but also mechanically groomed for an ideal surface.
Back in my room later I was able to see what Baldy was like when it was new by turning on the television and watching Sun Valley Serenade , an amusing 1941 movie that shows nonstop. Its plot is based on the likely premise that the Glenn Miller Orchestra decides to adopt a child war refugee, and she turns out to be Sonja Henie, grown up, cute as a button, and just dying to be married; she lights on John Payne, the band’s pianist, who of course is already engaged. Each time I turned on the TV I’d see Sonja Henie spinning like a top on the ice-skating rink behind the lobby, or the Glenn Miller band introducing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (the film’s one lasting mark), or passenger trains being met at the station by horse-drawn sleighs, or Henie chasing Payne on skis down Baldy. The movie was another early publicity coup for Sun Valley; among others drawn by it to the resort was Reza Pahlevi, Shah of Iran.
On my third and final day at Sun Valley, for a change of pace, I went cross-country skiing, on trails across the open meadows of what in the summer is an eighteen-hole Robert Trent Jones, Jr., golf course. The trail led out under Ruud Mountain, where the earliest surviving chair lift, the third in the world, still stands, long out of use and now a National Historic Landmark. With wooden towers about ten feet high and single chairs on short, dangling arms, it seemed tiny and primitive. A little way beyond, on another small hill, a partly overgrown swath through a glade of aspens marked the path of the very first chair lift.
Steve Hannagan had insisted on a comfortable way of getting skiers up a slope, and a Union Pacific engineer named James Curran devised the solution. Curran had previously worked with machinery used to move stalks of bananas off banana boats and onto trains, overhead cables with big hooks hanging down. He simply replaced the hook points with chairs. Not long after my visit to Sun Valley my work happened to bring me to a banana plantation in a Costa Rican jungle. There I saw snaking through the dense foliage an overhead cable whose hanging arms each held one big stalk of dozens of bunches of bananas. It looked exactly like the Ruud Mountain chair lift with one essential difference: Its train of twenty-four banana stalks was being pulled not by machinery but by a man in a harness.
After looking up at the site of the first chair lift, I glanced down and saw, just off the trail, a memorial to Ernest Hemingway, a stone engraved with words he had once written: “Best of all he loved the fall / The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods / Leaves floating on the trout streams / And above the hills / The high blue windless skies / Now he will be part of them forever.” Then I skied on to Trail Creek Cabin, a stone-and-log house built in 1938 with big fireplaces and a hot buffet lunch for skiers.